Popular personal-trainer and perennial fitness cover model Ava Cowan could be the most determined IFBB Pro Figure competitor to grace the Arnold Classic stage. She battled shyness and low self-esteem for much of her life, but through her adoption of the fitness lifestyle, she has become one of the most publicized and confident athletes on the Pro Figure circuit. At this year's Arnold Classic, Cowan plans to surprise the field and win.
Cowan began her pro career with an impressive fourth-place finish at the 2010 Jacksonville Pro. The lineup featured a staggering 35 elite athletes. Her other notable pro placements include a first-place finish at the 2011 Europa Supershow and third-place finishes at both the 2011 Olympia and 2012 Arnold Classic events. Cowan's record proves she has the goods to go all the way.
Her "do or die" training approach combined with years of acting, dancing, and gymnastics classes have helped Cowan continually evolve. Her outstanding symmetry, muscle definition, and size distinguish her as one of her division's more shapely contestants. Her incredible physique and competitive spirit made her one of the world's most decorated figure competitors. Ava Cowan is certainly a contender for top honors at this year's prestigious event.
In the following interview, Cowan shares her inspiring story and details how she prepared for the 2013 Arnold Classic.
I believe it may be the other way around. Because I am consistently in shape, I have a good reputation for being able to prepare for competitions successfully. I have always focused on educating myself and working with people that are much more knowledgeable than I am.
For example, I studied under Dr. Anthony Abbott to learn about exercise science and Dr. Layne Norton to learn about the healthiest way to prepare for competition. I also have that "in-the-trenches" knowledge about the different ways of getting lean for shows.
Being a consistently hard-working athlete also adds value to my reputation. I think, by now, I have established myself as a person who goes the distance and continues to better herself. Focusing on strengths and overcoming my weaknesses makes me relatable.
I am persistent to a fault. I contacted the magazines myself, pushing to get noticed. In order to garner that attention, I contacted amazing photographers, arranged photo shoots, got the clothing, and paid for makeup artists and photo editing. Once the images were complete, I would go to newsstands and write down the names of the art directors or anyone who had an email address I could submit my images to. For Oxygen, I even paid for the actual prints so Robert Kennedy could see them. Most of the time it didn't work, but I kept trying.
I finally got in to do "cover tries" for Oxygen. I did it five times, but never got a cover—even to this day! I finally let that one go. I figured that if there wasn't a good photo in all five test shoots, there would never be.
On the flipside, the magazine covers I did get happened because I did the work for the magazine. I sent in fully-edited images that needed no further work. It was a win-win situation. I got the cover I wanted for exposure and their cost was minimal. Once my name got out a bit more, the larger magazines would shoot me with staff photographers.
That never would have happened unless I had the vision to make it happen initially. I made sure I had 100 percent of everything I needed to build a great reputation in the industry. I was extremely professional, on time, and in shape. I didn't talk too much and I was easy to work with.
My number one strength is that I do not give up—no matter what. I have yet to nail my performance completely, but I will. I have not yet hit my full potential and have come up short, so I'm always motivated to get back up and keep trying. I fail all the time, but I still try.
When I feel like an outsider and sad because I have not reached the levels I know I can, I ask myself the tough questions like, "Why continue?" or, "Why the years of sacrifice?" But the last thing that I hear is the small voice in my head that says "do not give up on yourself!"
I have battled with low self-esteem my whole life, and my purpose for competing is to show up for myself, no matter what. My goals are never about winning first place, though I see that in my mind. I really do. To protect my heart, I focus on making the next showing better than the one before. That way, I just focus on things I can control.
The day I nail my performance, to the best of my ability, I will have achieved my greatest success. I take risks, and fall on my face. But so what? I will keep doing just that because that is what I have to do for me. I have to show up for me.
I look different at every single show, but I do believe I have refined my physique. When I started working with Kim Oddo, he opened my eyes to what the IFBB judges were looking for. I heeded his advice and stripped off a lot of muscle. It worked beautifully.
I placed well at the 2011 Arnold and Olympia. I have since gone back, looked at pictures, and decided to put a little muscle back on in certain places. My current goals consist of bringing back some muscle fullness, remaining balanced, and working on my posing.
First place, baby! I promise you and everyone else that if I did win, I would just die on that stage. For that alone maybe I will win, so that everyone can see me fall on the floor. Joking aside, I don't aim for placements. There can be only one winner. It may be a huge disappointment to set your sights on a certain placing. All I want to do is nail my performance: the suit, hair, posing, and presentation.
I also just realized that there aren't any pictures of me looking right at the head judges and J.M. Manion. When I say I want to improve with each performance, this is what I mean. One of my goals for the Arnold is to walk through my shyness and get a beautiful front-on stage picture.
I am doing more compound movements and using all planes of motion to create a nice flow to my physique. I am doing lifts I haven't done in several years and am enjoying my training. My body is responding well to these new movements. I love bodybuilding—it makes me so happy to lift.
The compound movements will give me a bit more muscle than I had at the 2012 Figure Olympia. I expect wider lats and more muscle on my biceps. My quads and triceps are ready to go. I always make sure my calves are balanced and full. Those back shots look so much better when I have nice calves.
This year, my waist is smaller than ever because I'm completely free from the digestive issues I suffered from in the past.
I am a warrior in every sense of the word. You can't break me. That is my mentality. Every time I step on stage, I take away something from that experience and use it or improve. I study pictures, poses, other competitors' presentations, comparison pictures, timing, turns, and all other aspects of being on that stage. I am in a relentless pursuit to overcome my internal and external obstacles.
When I am behind that curtain, way before the audience can even see me, I transform. There is an internal light switch I flip on and I am able to become the person I know I need to be to make it happen onstage. I have done the work to build that persona you see onstage.
I've taken years of acting classes, studied character development, and participated in gymnastics and dance classes. I tried anything I could think of to create the person I would want to watch. It takes that kind of commitment at this level. And I am not done.
Without Gaspari Nutrition, the NPC, and the IFBB, I would not be where I am today. They put my career into overdrive.
My first show was the best moment of my competitive career. I trained alone, I existed alone, and I didn't know anyone in the industry except for my coach. I won the 2005 NPC Southern States Figure Championships overall.
To this day, I know that preparing for that show was the hardest I have ever worked in my life. In a sense, I was fighting for my life; and winning that show was an acknowledgement of my hard work. I have never had a better feeling before or since.
I go all out with a 100 percent do-it-or-die mentality when I train.
I cycle my carbs every day. I never eat the same foods. I cannot adhere to that. I don't do any magic tricks or drop water or sodium. I eat salt all the way through my prep up to the day of the show—I just don't add any salt to my food on competition day. I sip on water and if I need fullness or flatten out, I'll eat a big Doritos Grab Bag.
You have to have thick skin and a relentless desire to succeed. You must be extremely competitive, but you must also be willing and ready to place last. It happens and you better be able to take it, and take it and gracefully. That is a real champion. It's easy to win and be happy, but can you lose and feel the same way? You'd better, because all eyes are on you.
I thank God for bringing me through and to this path and way of life. Although the reasons have not been fully revealed to me, I know it is all to prepare me for what is to come. This path I have chosen forces me to push myself beyond anything I have ever experienced in my life. And because I am forced to grow every single day, I am finally becoming the woman I was always meant to be. I'm not there yet, but I will be and I know it.
I want to thank Dr. Layne Norton for believing in me from the beginning, when I didn't believe. He stood by all of my decisions, whether he agreed with them or not. He taught me a new way of looking at competition prep in terms of nutrition, and has allowed me to fall flat on my face from choices I have made on my own. That is what a real teacher does. We move forward together.
I would like to thank Gaspari Nutrition for signing me almost four years ago. Thanks also goes to J.M. and Jim Manion for giving me the opportunity to compete in the NPC and ultimately on the IFBB stage. Without that opportunity, I would have never been able to compete against the best athletes in the world. My journey as a competitor has helped me discover my life's purpose and has enabled me to stretch beyond anything I could have imaged. I have grown so much, and for that I am so grateful.
I also want to acknowledge myself, because I rarely do. I know I am hard on myself. If I were to give just 10 percent more acknowledgements to myself, I bet that would make some of the dark days a bit brighter. I know that's something I should add to my belief system.
I want to thank my boyfriend Eugene for loving me unconditionally. I have never had that kind of support emotionally in my life. I'm grateful for him. I want to thank the people on the sidelines and who post on my Facebook fan page, scream my name when I walk onstage, or send me emails about how I have inspired them, motivated them, or changed their life for the better in some way. That makes this journey rewarding.
Thank you to Ian L. Sitren for believing in me years before the world knew my name. His friendship means more to me than he will ever know.
Last, I want to thank the people who don't believe in me. You make me train harder than you can imagine! For you doubters, I am grateful. I mean that sincerely. It's hard to find an edge over and over, year after year. Anger can be a great motivator, so I'll take it!